The Source has just published its article on “Orthodox Easter”, which incorporates some of my answers to Hayden’s questions that I shared with you. It’s pretty good, though I might want to put a bit more of transcendent spin on Hayden’s conclusion that “Ultimately, for Orthodox Christians, Pascha comes down to basic humble needs.” The context of Hayden’s statement seems to imply that those “basic humble needs” are for food and family. That is ultimately true, as our most basic needs are for food – hence our focus on the “spiritual food” God has given us, the Eucharist – and family – hence our coming together as the family of God, the Church, in celebration of our adoption as sons of God, accomplished through Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection!
For reference, I include the full text of my interview with Hayden Case below:
Firstly, tell us about your role at St John’s:
I’m the priest and pastor at St. John of Shanghai Orthodox Church. My role is to lead in prayer and to take care of the spiritual needs of the people in our community.
What does your Easter period involve?
Our Easter – or, as we usually refer to it, our Pascha (the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word for “Passover”) is the grand, celebratory, festal finish to a period of forty days (Lent) plus another week (Holy Week) of fasting from meat, fish, and dairy – a period of intense spiritual discipline in which our prayer services are longer, more frequent, and more solemn than usual. The aim of these spiritual disciplines is repentance – to examine our minds and hearts and to change them, or, rather, to allow God to change them as needed.
During the nightly services of Holy Week, we remember and relive the last week of Jesus’ life, culminating in a combined reading of all the accounts of his death on the eve of Good Friday, and a solemn funeral procession and entrance into the church as “tomb” on the eve of Holy Saturday. Our local custom is for all who can to keep prayerful vigil over the icon of Christ’s body in the “tomb” all that night. Then, precisely at midnight on Sunday morning, after another solemn and anticipation-filled procession around the church, I knock on the door of the “tomb” and we all enter, singing and shouting “Christ is risen!” into a building newly bedecked with white flowers and ablaze with light.
How is Orthodox Easter celebrated at St John’s?
When we enter into the church and Pascha has come, we begin the most joyful service of the Orthodox year, the “Feast of feasts, Holy Day of holy days,” as we sing that night. As the church is censed repeatedly, I cry out “Christ is risen!” and everyone shouts back, “Indeed, He is risen!” Because Pascha is being celebrated throughout the Orthodox world at this time, our custom is also to give the Paschal greeting and response in as many languages as we can manage – and I usually manage to stump most of my parishioners when I shout out in my very rusty Japanese, “????????” (Harisutosu fukkatsu!)
After the service is over, we bless our Paschal baskets, filled with foods we have been fasting from for the duration of Lent and Holy Week – and then our local custom is to feast on the contents of those blessed baskets, sharing them with everyone around us. Later that Sunday – usually around 4pm – we celebrate Paschal Vespers, a short and particularly joyful version of our usual evening service, after which we feast again, this time with a full meal in which roast lamb is usually the main attraction.
What can a newcomer experience on Easter at St John’s?
All who come are welcome to participate in every aspect of the Paschal service, with the exception of communion, which is reserved for baptized Orthodox Christians who have fully prepared themselves to receive it. The service can be a little overwhelming for first-timers, as we stand (in what are usually fairly close quarters!) for the full two-and-a-half hours of the service – so it is important to remember that no one present will think any less of a newcomer for bowing out of the service or sitting down for a while!
In what ways do you respect or celebrate Easter?
The aforementioned Easter baskets, Paschal service, and great feast are the main ways we honour and celebrate Easter, but there are many other Easter customs arising out of the cultures that Orthodox Christianity has engaged with – mostly tied in with the Paschal themes of Christ’s death and resurrection – probably the most famous symbol of new life being the beautifully decorated Ukrainian Easter eggs.
The festal period of Pascha also extends throughout the whole week following the great feast, which is known as “Bright Week”. Throughout this period we do not fast, we greet one another with the exclamation, “Christ is risen!” and all church services held during this period – even funerals! – are exceptionally joyful.
How do families celebrate Easter with their children?
Children participate in every aspect of the Paschal experience: helping to prepare the Easter baskets, joining in the processions, at some points sleeping in back corners of the church, at others joining in the singing and feasting however late (or early!) it may be. Some families will hold Easter-egg hunts for their children – and some churches as well… The children’s Easter-egg hunt was a long-established custom at the seminary I attended, for example.
What differences are there between Easter and Orthodox Easter?
The most obvious difference between “Western Easter” and Orthodox Pascha is the date. While the feast-days occasionally coincide, Orthodox Christians still calculate the date of Easter on the old calendar established under Julius Caesar, a calendar which many Orthodox Churches still employ. At St. John’s, we use the modern calendar for most of our “fixed feasts” (we celebrate Christmas on December 25 according to the Gregorian calendar, for example), but in order that all the Orthodox Christian churches may celebrate the great “Feast of feasts” together, we calculate the date of Pascha following the more ancient Christian tradition.
Feel free to add anything else here:
While there are other differences between the “Western” celebration of Easter and the Orthodox celebration of Pascha, it would be misleading to make those differences a primary focus. In fact, it is our common understanding of the central and primary importance of what all Christians celebrate at Easter – our understanding that Jesus did not simply die on the cross, but that three days later he rose from the dead – that unites Christians all around the world, and that puts the central focus of every version of Christianity not on death, but on life and on God’s love for us.